¡Viva! Film Notes – Josefina

Dr Abigail Loxham, University of Liverpool, explores Javier Marco’s Josefina, screening as part of ¡Viva! Festival 2022. 

When the capacity to first record and later project moving images was developed enchantment with, and interest in, these images resided in the novelty of watching the everyday but seeing it on screen, as if through this transposition from real life to the film screen magic or what the German philosopher Walter Benjamin termed ‘aura’ was added. Early theorists writing about documentary described our inherent interest in ourselves as a feature and attraction of watching film. In many ways this is where the visual appeal and interest in Josefina resides, in its extended contemplation of the day-to-day. The ordinary in this film reveals a critique of some of the institutions that govern our day-to-day. As we recognise some of the mundane details of everyday life that are comparable to our own, we begin to reflect on broader themes in the film.

Students of film must interrupt their immersion and enjoyment in order to notice the individual elements of the film, pausing to watch and re-watch extracts as we dissect them to understand and describe key elements of film form and use the correct language to describe them. Josefina employs many of these formal attributes to engage us and to make the film visually appealing; the music, framing and colour palette are meticulously designed and extremely attractive. Our attention is drawn to the framing of the protagonists, Berta and Juan (Emma Suárez and Roberto Álamo), we frequently view them side-by-side, often at the bus stop, in a medium shot that neither forces intimacy nor grants the distance required to be a voyeur. In this sense I think we are aligned with them, cinematically we inhabit the same spaces, a reminder of the ordinariness of these encounters, and by extension these lives. The spaces that we inhabit with these characters are also significant, this is not cinematic tourism taking us to the big cities in Spain, we are in the suburbs, the outskirts of a town that could be anywhere (although the prison shows us we are in Madrid) even the domestic interiors of the flats and the accoutrements of daily life are universal and ordinary, the human protagonists are the focus as we witness their relationships and their fallibility.

There is so much silence in this film and so much that is conveyed by the brilliant acting of these characters as the lack of dialogue forces us to observe their actions; Emma Suárez as Berta draws us into her performance so that we feel the worry of a mother, a wife and towards the end of the film bear witness to her grieving. It is a film about hope and finding connection and all of these themes are presented through the most mundane details of life, dogs that need walking, remote controls that break and the daily grind of a job that apparently presents no reward other than the financial, an example of the subtle social critique at work in this piece. After two years of drama and uncertainty that were caused by a global pandemic there is also comfort in watching the slow unfolding of the quotidian, a reminder perhaps that this is where the true enchantment of film lies in its ability to illuminate the everyday, to make it interesting to us again.

Spanish film has a tradition of social realism, using films to critique power and draw attention to issues of social injustice, often employing the focus on ordinary characters. In this case perhaps the current political situation is reviving an interest in this ordinariness as a form of social critique. A prison on the outskirts of Madrid is the setting for much of it but we are given very little back story about the prisoners and the security guards employed to watch endless screens from the many cameras within, are almost as trapped as the prisoners themselves. We know that these characters are flawed but we know that the socio-economic situation is one that contributes to those flaws and limits them in ways that will be recognisable to many of us. There is humour in their routines (look for the quotations on the sugar packets) and there is a beauty in its depiction, but there is also a reminder about the reality of lived experience for others and the various way in which exclusion works. When films tell us stories of ordinary lives, they ask us to reflect on our own and to empathise with the characters they depict so enjoy this brief window into the lives of Juan and Berta, and look forward to hopefully more from Javier Marco as Spain sees a new generation of directors emerging who look at life anew through their cinematic lens.